[Newsletter E 6]
INTO THE WILDERNESS
Homosexuality & the massacre
By Bill Andriette
From The Guide, June 1999
Nowhere else in the world do boys shoot up schools like in America-- not in South Africa, Pakistan, or the former Soviet Union-- places rife with social tension and awash in Kalishnikovs. There've been six mass shootings in 18 months-- enough to be become its own crime category, but still rare enough to remain shocking. The deadliest occurred April 20th in Littleton, Colorado, where two boys killed 15 at Columbine High School, including themselves, and injured some 20 others. So far the school-shooters are all white boys. The mayhem they've wreaked has become a Rorschach for middle-class America's anxieties-- about the young, the Internet, media violence, lax parents, teen culture. But with Littleton, that other perennial anxiety-- homosexuality-- came to the fore.
A gay angle surfaced almost as soon as the shootings hit the news, with rumors circulating that the boys with the bombs and guns were -- variously -- certainly gay, absolutely heterosexual, or self-avowed bisexuals. But almost everyone at Columbine High agreed they had been taunted as queer.
The right-wing seized on their the killer's possible homosexuality. "The two homosexual boys came to school Tuesday in fatigues, pipe bombs strapped to their chests and shotguns... under their long black coats.... with one thing on their minds-- to kill students who refused to accept their perversions," declares a Web site, www.thundernet.com, admidst pages promoting skepticism about the Holocaust. More PR-savvy, the Christian-right Family Research Council declared simply that mainstream media were deliberately underplaying the killers' homosexuality from deference to the gay lobby.
Many gay public relations experts thought it best to downplay Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's possible homosexuality. "We have to take a very cautious approach," Ben Stilp of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation told Boston's Bay Windows. "Ultimately the kind of story that could get out there is that gay and lesbian youth in high school can be confused and prone to violence." Fearing violence, the local sheriff reportedly told staffers at Equity Colorado to "lay low" and not respond to rumors.
Others tread boldly out on the limb GLAAD's spinmeisters feared could break. "[C]ampus jocks remember calling Eric and Dylan 'faggot,' 'homo,' and 'queer' because 'they showered together' or 'were seen holding hands,'" noted a press release from the Metropolitan Community Church. "The bullies and jocks who survived the Columbine massacre will always wonder... if their violent words pushed Eric and Dylan to this violent act," the MCC statement continued, ignoring how random a swathe the killers cut through Columbine's student body.
Whatever homophobic harassment the high school jocks dished out to the two gunmen, however, it would be hard to make over the killers into sympathetic victims of hate speech. If Matthew Shepard's death could be likened to the crucifixion, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were Antichrists. Gay commentators chose agnosticism-- whether the two were gay or not was a fact that could never be firmly established. With palpable relief, they noted that the two boys had girlfriends.
But asking whether Klebold and Harris were "really" gay misses the point. Like a wick in gasoline, their relationship was soaked with homoeroticism. The theme of braving death together in battle runs through the literature of queer love from Achilles and Patroclus to The Shropshire Lad. In his diary, one of two spun out a fantasy of living on an island alone with the other. Time magazine dubs them "The Monsters Next Door," but 17-year-old Harris gazes off the cover friendly and fey, his pal, 18-year-old Klebold, looking like an Eagle Scout caught in a goofy grin. "When we we read Shakespeare," a girl in Klebold's English class told the Denver Post, "he would always get the hidden meaning." The Nazi rhetoric the two clumsily embraced makes less sense as a political program-- Klebold's grandfather was Jewish, and African-Americans had counted among their friends-- than for fascism's iconics of heightened masculinity, its promise of blood bond among the chosen cemented by hate for those outside. Whether they had girlfriends or not, Harris and Klebold shared a pact-unto-death that, if twisted horribly, also was romantic.
Yet whatever their intimacy together, Harris and Klebold's deep disconnect to everyone else also may relate to homoeroticism-- or rather what has been the cleansing of it from the culture of American boyhood. Taunts the two killers received about taking showers and holding hands indicate how much routine same-sex physical exposure and contact is now suspect as a sign of "being gay." School shower-taking is now virtually unknown in the US, so sexually charged is simple nudity. Roughhousing and piling bodies together in play always carries a sexual undercurrent, and sometimes segue into covert sex games. This intimacy is the shared secret of adolescent boys the world over. This sharing of skin is vital in male socialization, and virtually absent among girls, who from an early age play at social relationships directly-- whether with dolls or in their lively webs of gossip. Boys' connection to the social often takes root only underground, under the guise of fighting's thrusts and parries.
The same fear of sexual danger that keep boys apart also puts a wall between the generations. Late 20th-century America has perhaps the most rigid age-apartheid of any society in history. The kind of suspicion cultivated to separate women from men in fundamentalist Islam, and which existed in the post-Civil War South between black males and white women, now rages in America between adults-- especially men-- and the young. Schools and clubs forbid unrelated adults from ever being alone with teenagers or children. In Massachusetts it's a misdemeanor for an adult to initiate a conversation with an unknown minor. America's age apartheid ends supposedly in the home, but it didn't in the spacious suburban ranches of the killers, whose parents were oblivious to the arsenals being assembled in their bedrooms and garages.
Anywhere US culture does not dominate, boys walk arm in arm, and adults and kids talking casually on the street-- these are small threads, but important in weaving a social fabric. Readily available automatic weapons and incessant media violence are hardly social goods. But Harris and Klebold cobbled a rationale for slaughter less out of Gothic rock and Nazi chat rooms than their total human isolation, their lacking any larger sense of social and temporal reality. Thus could a gang rivalry eclipse all else.
The Columbine massacre shouldn't have happened here, said county officials, pointing to their state-of-the-art "juvenile assessment center." When Harris and Klebold became juvenile offenders for smashing a car windshield, the county gave them psychological assessments, tested them regularly for drug use, and required attendance in an "anger-management" class, which they passed with flying colors. Everything from their boys' piss to their emotional states was carefully monitored. But nothing was comprehended.
As usual, there's a grain of truth to the right-wing's claims. The Columbine killings had something to do with homosexuality. But the real picture is not the one the Christian fundamentalists would draw-- of twisted homo youths bent on bloody revenge. Neither is it necessarily the lesson that MCC might take from the massacre-- the need for more sensitivity training in public schools. That bonding among boys means being gay, and that adults are sexual dangers and must be kept at arm's length from the young are claims encouraged, for their various purposes, by both the left and the right. These falsehoods, taken uniquely far in America, have helped choke off paths through the wilderness along which boys become men without becoming monsters. **
[Newsletter E 6]